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Monday, October 26, 1998 Published at 15:30 GMT

Hakkinen has the edge

By the BBC's Motor Racing Correspondant Jonathan Legard.

After 15 races over 9 months spanning four continents, you may have thought that by now we would know the identity of the 1998 World Champion.

[ image: Arch rivals Hakkinen and Schumacher nose-to-tail at Luxembourg]
Arch rivals Hakkinen and Schumacher nose-to-tail at Luxembourg
But no. Much to the delight of Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, the competition which looked to be no contest after Brazil - remember the glum faces of all non McLaren team members in March - has developed into yet another gripping finale.

The five week gap has admittedly been a bit of a downer, but not for much longer.

In any case both McLaren and Ferrari have been testing madly. Mile upon mile upon mile of track time in search of some vital adjustment to improve performance.

Hakkinen in front

Mika Hakkinen must surely have the bit between his teeth after such a commanding triumph in the last race at the Nurburgring. McLaren's post race euphoria suggested they had won a crucial breakthrough.

[ image: Hakkinen takes first at Luxembourg leaving him four points ahead]
Hakkinen takes first at Luxembourg leaving him four points ahead
Four points is not a huge advantage but consider it from Michael Schumacher's position. Even if he wins it may not be enough. If Hakkinen comes second he will take the title by virtue of his greater number of second place finishes.

Schumacher has to stay out of trouble. Unlike Adelaide 1994 and Jerez 1997, he is the one playing catch-up. He cannot afford collisions this time. He has to finish to stand a chance of overtaking Hakkinen.

Then there are the imponderables and the unknowns governing mechanical reliability. By the law of averages Ferrari are due a hiccup. Their record of one retirement each for Schumacher and Eddy Irvine is quite outstanding. But for how much longer?

Schumacher has the edge at Suzuka

In his favour, though, is his form at Suzuka. First or second in the last four years. He is never less than supremely confident in his own ability and that of his pitwall genius Ross Brawn, Ferrari's technical director.

[ image: Leap of joy - Schumacher at Monza, his win brought him back into the chase]
Leap of joy - Schumacher at Monza, his win brought him back into the chase
And he has Eddie Irvine, a team-mate who knows the twists and turns of the Suzuka like the back of his hand. Last year's shotgun ride on Schumacher's behalf around the figure of eight circuit ranked as one of the best of his career.

Where better to record a conclusive 1-2 finish than in the season's final race - a result which would hand the title to Schumacher?

The ugly prospect of foul play will doubtless rear its head in pre-race inquisitions. But David Coulthard does not believe it will be a factor.

Eddie would never do that, he says and Irvine is equally dismissive of the charge, saying: We have no thought of doing anything remotely illegal.

[ image: Foul play may rear its head]
Foul play may rear its head
Much has been made of Suzuka's role as test track for Bridgestone. But that did nothing of their performance last year when their best place car was tenth.

What's more their typical rivals, Goodyear, are quitting the sport after this race. Helping the world's most famous motorsport marque to their first championship in 19 years would be a dramatic farewell to a sport they have dominate for three decades.

As long as Michael Schumacher has four wheels on his car, he will be a threat. But, even though it goes against my pre-season selection, I take Mika Hakkinen to be crowned 1998 Formula One World Champion.

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